My grandmother was famous for her homemade bread. And not just in her own family.
One of my mother's recent recollections is this one: My grandmother used to bake bread and distribute the loaves to people in their Slovenian neighborhood in Cleveland. As a little girl, my mother used to accompany her mother, when she made the rounds.
"She just gave it away?" This puzzled me, because I knew the family didn't have much money, especially during the Depression.
Yes, my mother assured me. My grandmother was an open-hearted woman who believed in sharing what she had. Oh, one more thing. Somewhere along the line, she got some training as a hairdresser. So she also used to give free haircuts.
These stories do fit with my own memories of my grandmother's generous spirit. Still, I can't help but wonder if there might have been some bartering going on, or if she had a little business on the side.
Grandma's Homemade Bread (the official name, in our family) was a high point of our regular Sunday afternoon gatherings at the little bungalow she shared with Grandpa. They co-existed unhappily, my mother eventually revealed. He was a gruff, unhappy man, who was sometimes violent. She remained sweet and loving. Maybe baking was her escape.
My grandmother's bread was made with white flour and baked in standard rectangular bread pans. She served it still warm from the oven, thickly sliced. It was brown and crusty on the outside, tender and melting inside. We slathered it with butter or used it to make ham sandwiches. Grandma always had multiple loaves ready, enough to feed her four children, their spouses, and the dozen grandchildren who might show up.
It is hard to pinpoint what made my grandmother's bread so memorable. It was moister and sturdier, maybe even coarser, than standard white bread. She never used recipes. My mother recently mentioned that she often used potato water. Perhaps that was the secret.
I wondered if one of my vintage cookbooks might hold the key. They all had multiple recipes for bread. "Kruh," in Slovenian.
One recipe caught my eye: Beli Kruh.
Beautiful Bread? That seemed like a good place to start.
Then I remembered. Beli just means white. Plain old white bread.
I looked over the recipe. Although the ingredients were pretty standard, the process was unusual: an initial sponge, and then three more risings. So maybe this recipe held the key.
My bread making skills have become a little rusty. I used to bake bread more often, until I discovered a problem: If you bake your own, you eat more than you should.
So I made a few mistakes. The biggest one: The flour was too cold. And then I compounded the problem by adding too much at once.
But the yeast was definitely active. The bread rose, maybe even a little too much. And I ended up with two nice brown loaves. An extra-large rectangular loaf, and then a smaller flat bread, something like a fluffy pita, to accompany that night's cevapcici dinner.
The verdict: Mixed. The texture seemed uneven, with holes here and there. The flavor was fine. Of course, I was measuring my results against a fantasy.
That big loaf of white bread lasted a long time. I used a few slices the following week, when I made struklji, a boiled rolled dumpling with a bread-and-egg filling. My husband made bread pudding and croutons. Even though we kept it in the refrigerator, the last bit of the loaf got moldy and had to be discarded.
Maybe my grandmother really had figured out the secret of successful bread making.
Bread is meant to be shared. You need a big extended family or a whole neighborhood to enjoy the fruits of your labors.
I'll remember that next time. And maybe I'll add a little potato water.
To see more photos and to read the recipe, go to my Slovenian Roots Quest blog, here.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders